A self-pos­sessed man of let­ters

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Craven

S Eliot was a pub­lisher, ed­i­tor and critic as well as be­ing the most in­flu­en­tial (some would say the best) poet of the 20th cen­tury. The lad from St Louis who be­came in so many ways as English as West­min­ster Abbey was cer­tainly the most as­sim­i­lated poet of the high mod­ernist ex­per­i­men­tal mo­ment.

He ac­knowl­edged his friend Ezra Pound, who edited The Waste Land into its ul­ti­mate rav­ish­ing shape, as the greater maker, he knew he could not hold a can­dle to James Joyce, yet he was the man who ef­fec­tively in­vented mod­ern lit­er­ary crit­i­cism. In do­ing so he cre­ated a cli­mate sym­pa­thetic to the as­sim­i­la­tion of his own work as well as Pound’s, Joyce’s, John Donne’s and much else be­sides.

Wil­liam Emp­son, the poet who was also the most bril­liant an­a­lyt­i­cal critic of his gen­er­a­tion, said he was never sure how much of his own mind Eliot had in­vented. And it’s fas­ci­nat­ing in this lat­est col­lec­tion of Eliot’s cor­re­spon­dence to see the im­mensely for­mi­da­ble lit­er­ary man plough­ing through let­ter af­ter let­ter, cour­te­ous, alert, oc­ca­sion­ally sharp and kin­der than you might have guessed.

Here he is in a let­ter of Jan­uary 4, 1932, con­sol­ing Joyce on the death of his fa­ther. He men­tions, by way of con­trast, his own fa­ther’s death. Dear Joyce, I was very sorry to hear your news and much moved by your let­ter … [my fa­ther] died still be­liev­ing I’m sure, that I had made a com­plete mess of my life — which, from his point of view, and pos­si­bly quite rightly, I had done.

With his mother, things had been dif­fer­ent: “Whereas my mother lived long enough to take an im­mod­er­ate pride in my ac­com­plish­ment and to feel that I had done the best for my­self.”

He con­tin­ues: So when I sug­gest that pos­si­bly your fa­ther felt his life to be ful­filled in the recog­ni­tion of your fame & great­ness, it is not merely a con­ven­tional piece of con­so­la­tory chat­ter.

This gives new mean­ing to the idea of the thought­ful let­ter and it is char­ac­ter­is­tic. It seems — and this is a bit sur­pris­ing — that peo­ple found it easy to con­fide in Eliot, partly be­cause he was nat­u­rally pa­tient and partly be­cause his eth­i­cal stan­dards, de­rived from the ab­so­lute­ness of his re­li­gious con­vic­tions, were not in any way con­ven­tional. They had noth­ing at all to do with cold-shower moral­ism. As he says in a let­ter to the younger poet Stephen Spender, What re­ally mat­ters is not what I think about the Church to­day or about Cap­i­tal­ism or mil­i­tary pro­ces­sions or about Com­mu­nism: what mat­ters is whether I be­lieve in Orig­i­nal Sin … Do you re­ally sup­pose that ‘‘chastity, hu­mil­ity, aus­ter­ity and dis­ci­pline’’ as I mean them have any­thing what­ever to do with what is taught in school­room chapels … I’m not con­cerned with how peo­ple be­have, but with what they think of them­selves in their be­hav­iour; and I be­lieve that the man who thinks him­self vir­tu­ous is in dan­ger of damna­tion what­ever line of con­duct he adopts.

Ac­tor and bi­og­ra­pher Si­mon Cal­low said of John Giel­gud that he was mod­est and ap­proach­able (it was the act­ing that was grand). I sus­pect some­thing sim­i­lar was true of Eliot as a cor­re­spon­dent. He comes across a bit like the de­scrip­tion of Saint Thomas Aquinas (re­peated IT SEEMS — AND THIS IS A BIT SUR­PRIS­ING — PEO­PLE FOUND IT EASY TO CON­FIDE IN ELIOT in Joyce’s Ulysses) as some­one “with whom no word is im­pos­si­ble”. At the most lit­eral level this ap­plies to the bits of ob­scene dog­gerel in­ter­spersed in these let­ters as well as the charm­ing Old Pos­sum style rhymes for kids he’s writ­ing to, one of which in­cludes an il­lus­trated ver­sion of How un­pleas­ant to know Mr Eliot.

The most ob­vi­ous and prac­ti­cal ex­trap­o­la­tion of this is Eliot’s sup­port for a change to the cen­sor­ship laws as he tries to get a Bri­tish edi­tion of Ulysses pub­lished in Bri­tain. But it goes far be­yond this.

By this time he had cre­ated the black comic par­ody of The Love Song of J. Al­fred Prufrock, the be­witch­ments and dis­lo­ca­tions of the drafts and frag­ments of The Waste Land, forged the litur­gi­cal ag­o­nies of Ash Wed­nes­day and, as a con­vert to An­glo-Catholi­cism (mick­ery mi­nus the Pope), was mak­ing his way to­wards the still, lame mu­sic of Four Quar­tets with its par­o­dis­tic or­gan­i­sa­tion, its aes­theti­cism and its re­li­gious ec­stasies, all of them al­most ag­nos­tic in their expression, mak­ing sense of the busi­ness of the world. We think we know about Eliot’s To­ry­ism and his anti-Semitism and it is fas­ci­nat­ing to read in John Haf­fenden’s su­perb notes to these let­ters a quo­ta­tion from Eliot’s re­ply in 1948 to a let­ter from writer Les­lie Fiedler. Eliot says in his own de­fence that the po­ems in which the word “Jew” ap­pear were pub­lished by Leonard Woolf in Bri­tain and Al­fred A. Knopf in Amer­ica, both Jewish, and adds, “in short, the ev­i­dence on which you rely, dates from many years ago and the doc­u­ments were not re­garded at that time as anti-semitic by Gen­tiles or Jews”. He goes on: I re­alise that it must be very dif­fi­cult for a young man to re­alise that the mass emo­tions of his own time and gen­er­a­tion did not ex­ist at an ear­lier time, and that they may still be quite alien to older men still alive. I rec­om­mend it, how­ever, as a point worth sober re­flec­tion. If you could suc­ceed in un­der­stand­ing the dif­fer­ence, and the com­par­a­tive nov­elty of both semitic and anti-semitic hys­te­ria, you could ren­der great ser­vice to the ap­pease­ment of the vi­o­lent and ir­ra­tional pas­sions by which the world is now torn.

Haf­fenden also cites Eliot say­ing to Pound that his anti-Semitism was an in­sult to Eliot’s own re­li­gion: “The lat­ter in­cludes the Jewish re­li­gion.” This may not con­vince peo­ple who want to brand Eliot with anti-Semitism but the in­tel­lec­tual pa­tience may give them pause.

He is also very much aware of his “fea­tures of cler­i­cal cut”, the fact that all sorts of peo­ple see him as the worst kind of holy Joe. It’s not hard to imag­ine that some kind of grave grandeur of man­ner en­gen­dered by shyness or a covertly histri­onic tem­per­a­ment was part of the Eliot per­sona, but it would be naive to imag­ine he was un­aware of it. From his chair as ed­i­tor of The Cri­te­rion he writes to the young his­to­rian AL Rowse, “Of course I know I have been called a prig, you goose; that’s how I made my ac­quain­tance with the world.”

It’s not the dom­i­nant im­pres­sion of these let­ters, though, which ra­di­ate a busi­nesslike alert­ness in the face of the world of lit­er­a­ture and a spe­cial in­ter­est in pro­mot­ing the young and bril­liant. We see Eliot pub­lish­ing Spender and WH Au­den, and so­lic­it­ing ar­ti­cles on art from young Ken­neth Clark, as well as con­tem­po­raries such as John Maynard Keynes.

At one point he writes to Keynes to ask if it’s true that he had said pe­ri­ods of in­fla­tion pro­duced great writ­ing and if so, could he ex­pand on the point. In an­other mo­ment he will be ask­ing Woolf what learned rabbi might write a book about Ju­daism for Faber (the pub­lisher Eliot worked for) or of­fer­ing sup­port to that Calvin­ist of the canon­i­cal FR Leavis when he sets up his magazine Scru­tiny. This vol­ume of let­ters is, of course, a much big­ger book than all this might sug­gest, apart from any­thing else be­cause the fierce­ness of Eliot’s pri­vacy has gone into re­verse. It is al­most as if his the­ory of im­per­son­al­ity — and the vi­o­lence with which The Waste Land com­pli­cates and contradicts it when you re­alise the en­cy­clo­pe­dic frag­ments of stained glass that con­sti­tute it are the frac­tured im­per­son­ations of a man in a state of break­down — has led to Eliot as the male singer in the deadly duet of the Tom and Viv story.

It’s told here as a set of tragic in­ter­po­la­tions. Eliot goes off to Amer­ica, to Har­vard, with no in­ten­tion of com­ing back to his wife Vivi­enne. He says to Vir­ginia Woolf, “I can be com­pletely happy solely by be­ing away from Vivi­enne”, and we have here the fa­mous let­ter about how he has been liv­ing in a Dos­to­evsky novel, as well as Vivi­enne’s ter­ri­ble piteous let­ters ask­ing him to come back and talk­ing about the wel­come the puss­cats will give him.

Eliot’s re­solve not to see her again is chill­ing, but we do not judge this man. He is acutely sen­si­tive to other peo­ple’s suf­fer­ing and when Joyce’s daugh­ter, Lu­cia, goes mad he writes to Joyce, telling the Ir­ish­man he has had more of suf­fer­ing than any man is en­ti­tled to. He rec­om­mends the best French psy­chi­a­trists and warns Joyce that their equiv­o­ca­tion is a man­ner.

There are won­der­fully lively mo­ments scat­tered through­out this book. He says at one point that “Ber­tie” (Ber­trand Russell, who se­duced Vivi­enne) is one of his “lost il­lu­sions” and that he has “done evil with­out be­ing big enough to be evil”. There is also a daz­zling — weirdly un­ex­pected — mo­ment where Eliot gets Vir­ginia Woolf, surely one of the most stately and stylish women in the his­tory of the world, to scout around Lon­don for flats for him.

There are flashes of the depth of hu­man pain through­out as well as mas­sive tes­ti­mony to Eliot’s self-pos­ses­sion. There’s the lovely mo­ment when he says he went to a Repub­li­can rally in the US which had a lot of whiskey. He says, “the whiskey was good but the rally was un­der par”.

The char­ac­ter­is­tic note, how­ever, is of kind­li­ness, even char­ity. Eliot said of FO Matthiessen who wrote an early bril­liant book about him, “I felt I had been some trance medium for a gi­ant of the spirit world”. While he is in the US, a Mrs McKenna writes to Eliot en­clos­ing her dead son’s po­etry. He writes back to her say­ing the po­ems have a qual­ity sep­a­rate from the “achieve­ment” they lack. But they have an in­tense pu­rity and soli­tari­ness which is most un­com­mon both in po­etry and in peo­ple. It seems to me to have had such a son might be bet­ter than what­ever other sat­is­fac­tions the world has to give.

In the course of this brief pe­riod of cor­re­spon­dence Eliot says, “A poet can be judged by his let­ters”. Look at Keats, he says, who wrote the great­est let­ters “Keats could write great truths and yet be friv­o­lous.”

Eliot seems to have writ­ten only the let­ters he had to. None of these let­ters as­pire to be great and yet they re­ver­ber­ate with feel­ing. Ev­ery­one in­ter­ested in lit­er­a­ture should have a look at them. is a cul­tural critic.

From the cover of The Let­ters of TS Eliot; Vivi­enne Eliot, the wife the poet was ‘happy be­ing away from’, be­low

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.